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A look at winter solstice, the first day of winter and shortest day

On the winter solstice, the shadow you cast around noontime is the longest all yearOn the winter solstice, the shadow you cast around noontime is the longest all year — Photo courtesy of Drepicter / iStock Via Getty Images Plus

Also known as the hibernal solstice, the winter solstice occurs once a year in the northern and southern hemispheres. On the winter solstice, which happens on Dec. 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, the Earth’s axis is tilted the farthest away from the sun. Although it’s the shortest day of the year, it marks the beginning of the days growing longer.

According to the Farmers’ Almanac, if you stand outside at noon on the winter solstice and look at your shadow, it’s the longest shadow you will cast all year!

The word “solstice” comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), so named because the Romans observed that for a few days before and after the solstice, the sun’s path across the sky appeared to “freeze.”

When does winter start?

The answer depends on whether you’re defining the winter season astronomically or meteorologically.

Astronomical winter begins at the winter solstice and ends at the spring equinox. Astronomical seasons are based on the Earth’s tilt in relation to the sun and its rotation around the sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is in December, ending at the spring equinox in March. In the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is in June, ending at the spring equinox in September.

Meteorological winter in the Northern Hemisphere starts on December 1 and ends on February 28. In the Southern Hemisphere, the first day of winter is June 1. Meteorological seasons are based on the annual temperature cycle and climatological patterns observed on Earth.

Cool places to celebrate the winter solstice

Witness the sunrise at Stonehenge on the winter solsticeWitness the sunrise at Stonehenge on the winter solstice — Photo courtesy of kidmoses

Throughout history, the winter solstice symbolized rebirth and a return to light. Many cultures, both ancient and present, mark the day with celebrations, spiritual rituals, and observations.

There are historical sites associated with solstices and equinoxes — the most famous of which include Stonehenge in England, Machu Picchu in Peru, Chichen Itza in Mexico, and Newgrange in Ireland.

Can’t afford the airfare? No problem! You can watch the winter solstice sunrise live from Stonehenge.

Mystical solstice as the ancients observed it at Newgrange in IrelandMystical solstice as the ancients observed it at Newgrange in Ireland — Photo courtesy of ©Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland

Winning the winter solstice lottery at Newgrange is bucket-list experience. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Newgrange was constructed about 5,200 years ago. It’s recognized as an ancient temple of religious and ceremonial importance.

For five days around the winter solstice, a beam of sunlight illuminates a small room inside the mound for 17 minutes at dawn. The room holds only 20 people at a time. Every year, thousands enter a lottery, hoping to be one of the hundred people allowed to enter the room.

Winter solstice celebrations around North America

Set intentions and welcome the return to light at Four Seasons Scottsdale and Jackson HoleSet intentions and welcome the return to light at Four Seasons Scottsdale and Jackson Hole — Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Scottsdale

If you prefer to remain stateside, there are several places around the country celebrating the winter solstice. Welcome the changing of the seasons in style at Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North or Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole. At these resorts, you can commemorate the longest night of the year with a guided meditation, sound healing, and intention setting. Following the workshop, toast the year to come with a glass of warm cider.

In New England, celebrate the shortest day and longest night of the year at Smugglers’ Notch, a family resort in Vermont. A bonfire with s’mores, music, and hot cocoa kicks off the celebration, followed by Jeh Kulu Dance and Drum Theater, Cirque de Fuego, and fireworks.

Or head to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, which celebrates the return of the sun and warmth. Since 1994, the annual event brings together art, culture, diversity, and connection in neighborhoods around Vancouver. Special events like the Labyrinth of Light, created with more than 500 beeswax candle lanterns, are a highlight of the season.

You can also immerse yourself in nature and go stargazing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to welcome the winter solstice. Primland Resort has a unique winter solstice experience, allowing the whole family to gaze at the stars at a one-of-a-kind observatory, while learning about the winter solstice.

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